updated 11:37 pm EST, Thu November 29, 2012
Coming to retail stores tomorrow, GSM only
Following our earlier report, the online US Apple Store now has gone live with unlocked GSM-only versions of the iPhone 5 in time for the holiday buying season. The unlocked version starts at $649 for the 16GB model, mirroring pricing in other countries (such as Canada) where the unlocked version has been available right from the latest iPhone's debut. As has been traditional in the US, the company delayed the introduction of an unlocked model to allow carriers an advantage.
The wait of nine weeks for the unlocked version in the US means that lines may re-form outside Apple retail stores, which are expected to have stock of the unlocked version tomorrow. For the time being, Apple is limiting sales to two units per customer.
Customers who buy the unlocked version can enjoy the option of doing without a contract, using prepaid plans for service or changing carriers at will. In the US, the unlocked iPhone 5 is compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile (which has been speculated to be finally working out a deal with Apple for the device itself) and smaller, GSM-compatible carriers.
Verizon and Sprint, which use the CDMA protocol for voice and data, will not be carrying the unlocked model, but it appears that at least Verizon iPhone 5 models ship with GSM capability already unlocked, making them usable as "world phones."
Users may or may not actually save money by buying an unlocked phone: having one allows light users the option of having the technology while opting for lower-cost plans or prepaid, but savvy contract shoppers should be able to find deals on packages that work out to the same TCO over two years. The biggest advantage of an unlocked phone is the freedom to change carriers when a special deal arises, and to be able to use the iPhone in other countries by buying temporary or foreign nano-SIM cards rather than deal with roaming charges or expensive "out of region" plan options from their regular carrier.
Full prices in the US are $649, $749 and $849 for the 16, 32 and 64GB models. There is not yet any word as to when resellers and carriers themselves might get the unlocked models.